Revolutionary Relics: The Bastille Re-cast Anew

A model of the Bastille prison in Paris destroyed in the French Revolution

On 14 July 1789, in what would become a defining moment of the French Revolution, Parisians stormed the Bastille prison – a symbol of the ancien regime’s authority and despotism. Within days a local builder, Pierre-François Palloy, and his team of masons began to dismantle the old prison, taking away the stones, chains and debris, and leaving nothing but a space where this once imposing building stood.

The Storming of the Bastille in The History of the French Revolution. Translated by F. Shoberl (1881)
The Storming of the Bastille in The History of the French Revolution. Translated by F. Shoberl (1881) via The British Library

Palloy described himself as a patriot, self-identifying by signing his name ‘patriot Palloy’, and he chose to use the debris from the hated to prison to create a series of revolutionary relics. He used the stones to inscribe portraits of the king, revolutionary figures and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. He melted down the chains and cast medals of freedom. He even used the stones from the windowsill of the Bastille governor’s office to make a set of dominoes which he presented to the dauphin. Palloy used these stones as symbols of the revolution –  transforming a once despotic symbol into one of freedom.

The Bastille as a Symbol of Revolution

On 15 July 1789, the day after the storming, the newspaper Révolutions de Paris stated that the prison would be ‘entirely annihilated and, in its place, a monument to august Liberty will be raised’.[1] This indicates that the public immediately felt a need to memorialise and transform the space inhabited by the Bastille. The storming of the Bastille signified a moment when individuals came together against tyranny and were victorious – it signalled a huge shift in power.

Yet, very few people, in terms of the whole population of France, were actually present at the storming of the Bastille. Palloy recognised this, and saw the importance of the Bastille as a symbol of the Revolution and the opportunity it presented to amplify and spread the revolutionary message across France. By using the stones from the Bastille itself to create models of the prison, Palloy was forming portable material objects memorialising this momentous event. These models were then sent to every department in France, allowing people from all over the nation to feel part of this revolutionary moment.

The physical bulk of the prison had loomed large over Paris, and its destruction left a gap, both actually and metaphorically, that needed to be filled. Prior to the Revolution the monarchy had used a series of symbols, such as the fleur-de-lys, to lend themselves legitimacy, authority and allude to tradition. As the Revolution exploded into life, new symbols were required. These symbols came in many shapes – clothing, such as the revolutionary bonnet; monuments, such as liberty trees; and art, such as paintings of revolutionary figures. But where do Palloy’s objects fit? In his many speeches and pamphlets, Palloy defined his objects in a number of ways, embracing their multi-faceted meaning. He named them ‘reliques patriotiques’, which conjures images of sacred objects, and yet also plays on the idea that they are items from the past of historic value. He also referred to them as ex-votos (an offering to a saint or divinity) which again sacralises the stones. Additionally, Palloy called the stones ‘relics of freedom’, a name which recognised their new form and meaning.

A model of the Bastille prison in Paris destroyed in the French Revolution
One of the models of the Bastille cast by Pierre Francois Palloy

The Revolution created a new political culture which saw groups of people who had not previously engaged with politics emerge, this meant that Revolutionary propaganda became essential, not only to commemorate the key events of the Revolution but also to unite people and spread revolutionary ideals. Palloy did just that by creating smaller, multiple models of the Bastille. He demonstrated his agency and mastery over the despotic prison by defeating this once huge building and recasting it, in smaller form, anew. At the same time, Palloy was treating these transformed stones with reverence, ordering that they be celebrated as symbols of freedom, and therefore using them to unite people in common purpose.

The Making of the Models

Palloy’s Bastille stones were not only direct relics from the Bastille, and therefore were witness to years of oppression, but they were also then transformed by the hands of revolutionaries themselves. Palloy’s models were collectively created in his workshop by masons who had actually taken part in the demolition of the prison. These men who had torn down the stones were now remaking them in a new image which embodied both the despotic past, and the idealistic revolutionary actions of the present, at the same time. This fact lent the stones a whole new level of meaning, a meaning which could only be communicated if people knew of the context of their creation. Palloy ensured the provenance of the stones were announced at each models’ unveiling. In a speech given to mark the arrival of one of Palloy’s Bastille stones in the department of the Cote d’Or, the president of the administrative assembly, Navier, alluded to their power of evocation: ‘At the appearance of this monument, they believe they see the sombre dungeons; the noise of chains strikes their ear; the long wails of the victims resound in their hearts: a salutary horror will keep away tyrants everywhere.’[2]

As the Revolution continued, and competing factions vied for ascendancy, there was a need to narrate and define the transformation of power. Not only this but an end point was required at which revolution would stop and the new society could emerge and move forwards. Palloy himself was clear that his intention with his revolutionary relics was to use them as symbols of liberty even as the dominant ideology shifted around him, in a speech to the Constituent Assembly in October 1791 he said: ‘I have immortalized every epoch of the Revolution with trophies that I have dedicated to freedom.’[3] A simple model of the prison would serve only as a reminder of the old order. Palloy’s models were the Bastille crushed and remade, their meaning transformed by the hands of the demolishers themselves.

Palloy: The Barnum of the Bastille

The speed with which Palloy swooped in and took control of the demolition of the Bastille and appointed himself as custodian of its rubble has led some to claim Palloy was hoping to commodify and profit from the fall of the Bastille. Tom Stammers even referred to him as the ‘Barnum of the Bastille’,[4] and it is true there was something of

Portrait of Pierre-François Palloy held at Musée Carnavalet
Portrait of Pierre-François Palloy held at Musée Carnavalet

the ringmaster in the way Palloy managed the Bastille models and dictated their celebration and display. However, Palloy was not actually reimbursed by the government for the demolition of the Bastille until 1791/2, and between 1789 and 1799 Palloy published over 100 pamphlets and tracts of speeches, posters and designs for monuments he wanted to erect on the site of the Bastille, all at his own expense. In his 1794 autobiography Palloy wrote that the demolition of the Bastille, the distribution of the relics and the publication of his writings had left him financially ruined – which all attest to his life-long commitment to his vision of spreading the revolutionary message through his relics of the Bastille. When Palloy was mistakenly arrested and imprisoned by the Commune over alleged embezzlement, he clearly thought he might become a victim of the guillotine and, revealing his passion for the Bastille relics, he asked that he be buried under a Bastille stone inscribed ‘Here lies Palloy, who in his youth laid siege to the Bastille, destroyed it, and scattered the limbs of this infernal monster over the face of the Earth.’[5]

Today a number of Palloy’s Bastille models survive, some in museums, others built into the fabric of public buildings – their significance lessened by the passing of time, their curious provenance reduced to a historical footnote. Yet during the Revolution itself, thanks to the monumental efforts and vision of one man, these very same objects served to embody multi-faceted meaning. Palloy ensured through his speeches, pamphlets, festivities and parades that these multiple, miniature models of the Bastille could cast their Revolutionary message across France, to all levels of society. Their ability to represent past, present and future combined with Palloy’s talent for propaganda allowed these very simple objects to tangibly represent a victory over despotism.


[1] Révolutions de Paris, (Paris, 15 July 1789) quoted in Richard Clay, Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the transformation of signs, (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2012), p. 26.

[2] Claude-Bernard Navier, Procés-verbal de ce qui s’est passé a la séance du 13 Novembre 1790, (1790).

[3] Pierre-François Palloy, speech to the Constituent Assembly (October 1791)

[4] Tom Stammers, ‘The bric-a-brac of the old regime: Collecting and cultural history in post-revolutionary France’, French History, vol 22, Issue 3, (2008), pp. 295–315.

[5] Pierre-François Palloy, printed defence, (Paris, 1794).

The Tragic Tale of the Death of Nicolas Chamfort 


While researching Famous Last Words I came across so many fascinating (and sometimes tragic) stories of people’s last moments the full detail I was not able to include in the book, so I thought I might share some snippets here on my blog. I wrote about the Curious Fate of King James II a couple of weeks ago and now I would like to share the tragic tale of Nicolas Chamfort.

Nicolas Chamfort

Nicolas Chamfort (c.1740–1794) was a French playwright born in a small village in Clermont Auvergne. Despite his lowly beginnings Chamfort managed to secure a scholarship to study in Paris.

Chamfort soon rose to fame in Parisian society for his great wit, handsome face and brilliant conversation. When commenting on his extensive education he quipped: ‘What I learned I no longer know; the little I still know, I guessed!’

Chamfort published a number of well-received plays and in 1769 was admitted into the Académie Française. So far, so good. Chamfort had risen to the heady heights of social success, supping with the cream of society.

The French Revolution

During the intellectual debate stirred by the French Revolution Chamfort became disillusioned with his patrons from the upper classes. Chamfort walked away from the riches poured on him in society, and returned to relative poverty.

Chamfort became secretary to the Republican Jacobins and wrote revolutionary pieces such as Pensées, maximes et anecdotes (1795). He also coined many aphorisms such as ‘War to the châteaux, peace to the cottages’ and his version of the Revolutionary cry ‘fraternity or death’ – ‘Be my brother or I’ll kill you’ which summed up the fervour of the Revolution.

As the Revolution spiralled out of control and the Reign of Terror took hold, Chamfort, disgusted by the blood-letting, turned his back on the Jacobins and took up with the Moderates. This change of allegiance enraged the Jacobins, who had him arrested and imprisoned.

Chamfort found the horror of prison too much to bear and yet could not restrain his flow of sarcastic commentary on the new order of things in Revolutionary France – the very skill for which he had once been so celebrated was now his downfall – as a result he was again threatened with prison.

Unable to bear the thought of his freedom being curtailed once more, Chamfort chose suicide. In September 1793, Chamfort took a gun, locked himself in his study and shot himself in the face.9781851242511

Unfortunately the pistol misfired and though he managed to shoot off his nose and part of his jaw, he did not die. Desperate now, Chamfort grabbed a paper cutter from his desk and began stabbing himself in the neck and chest.

Still living, he scrawled the following declaration ‘I, Sebastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, hereby declare my wish to die a free man rather than to continue to live as a slave in a prison.’ In rather fabulously melodramatic fashion he signed the statement with his own blood.

The men sent to arrest Chamfort found him unconscious in a pool of blood, they showed no mercy and carted him off to prison despite his terrible injuries. Imprisoned, Chamfort lingered on in great pain until April 1794, when he finally died of his injuries. His last words were: ‘And so I leave this world, where the heart must either break or turn to lead.’

The curious fate of King James II

Recently while researching a book I am working on (the details of which I shall reveal in October – watch this space!). I came across a fascinating first-hand account on the strange fate of the body of exiled King James II and thought it would be a good nugget to share.

King James II

James II of England (IV of Scotland) was the second son of Charles I and succeeded his brother Charles II to the crown of England and Scotland in 1685.

James was a Catholic and after years of religious in-fighting and turmoil the ruling English nobles were very unhappy to have a Catholic on the throne. The last straw came when James II’s Catholic wife, Mary of Modena, produced a son and heir, insuring the crown would again pass onto a Catholic.

It was at this point that James’ nephew William of Orange, a firm Protestant, was invited to invade England and seize the crown, which he successfully did in 1688 in the ‘Glorious Revolution’. To further complicate matters for poor James, William of Orange was married to James’ daughter, Mary (who had been brought up a Protestant), from his first marriage to Anne Hyde.

James went into exile in France under the protection of his cousin, Louis XIV*, where he lived out his days at a chateau in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. James died of a brain haemorrhage in 1701 and what happened to his body thereafter is rather curious.

His heart was removed and placed in a silver casket and given to a convent in Chaillot, his brain was kept in a lead casket and given to the Scots College in Paris, his intestines were decanted into two gilt urns and given to the parish church of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the Jesuit college in St Omer, and somewhat bizarrely the skin from his right arm was gifted to the English Augustinian nuns of Paris.

The remains of his body were placed in a lead-lined coffin and sarcophagus and transported to the Chapel of St Edmund in the Church of the English Benedictines in the Rue de St Jacques in Paris. The coffin was not buried but kept in the chapel, surrounded by candles, in the hope that it might one day be returned to England for burial in Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately that never happened.

In 1789 during the French Revolution churches were raided and coffins defaced in order to use the lead inside to make bullets. It is known that James II’s coffin was plundered by revolutionaries and while researching for a book I am writing I came across this rather gruesome eye-witness account of what happened when the revolutionaries opened the coffin. It comes from The Last Words of Distinguished Men and Women (Real and Traditional) by Frederic Rowland Marvin (1901):

The following curious account was given in 1840 by Mr. Fitzsimmons, an Irish gentleman upward of eighty years of age, who taught French and English at Toulouse and claimed to be a runaway monk:

“I was a prisoner in Paris, in the convent of the English Benedictines in the Rue St. Jacques, during part of the Revolution. In the year 1793 or 1794, the body of King James II. of England (died 1701) was in one of the chapels there, where it had been deposited some time, under the expectation that it would one day be sent to England for interment in Westminster Abbey. It had never been buried. The body was in a wooden coffin, inclosed in a leaden one; and that again inclosed in a second wooden one, covered with black velvet. While I was a prisoner the sans-culottes broke open the coffins to get at the lead to cast into bullets. The body lay exposed nearly a whole day. It was swaddled like a mummy, bound tight with garters. The sans-culottes took out the body, which had been embalmed. There was a strong smell of vinegar and camphor. The corpse was beautiful and perfect. The hands and nails were very fine. I moved and bent every finger. I never saw so fine a set of teeth in my life. A young lady, a fellow prisoner, wished much to have a tooth; I tried to get one out for her, but could not, they were so firmly fixed. The feet also were very beautiful. The face and cheeks were just as if he were alive. I rolled his eyes; the eye-balls were perfectly firm under my finger. The French and English prisoners gave money to the sans-culottes for showing the body. The trouserless crowd said he was a good sans-culotte, and they were going to put him into a hole in the public churchyard like other sans-culottes; and he was carried away, but where the body was thrown I never heard. King George IV. tried all in his power to get tidings of the body, but could not.”

This is not quite the end of the story, because in 1824 the church of St Germain-en-Laye was rebuilt and one of the urns containing his intestines was found and reburied, ensuring a small scrap of James II survives buried in Paris.

*Louis XIV was a kindly cousin and once James was in exile tried to get him elected to be King of Poland, James declined the offer fearing it would prevent him ever returning to rule England.